Retro Radical

August 13th, 2009

Come With Us Back To Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear


With the possible exception of the slingshot Top Fuel cars, no other vintage drag racers elicit the same response as the early gassers. With their nose-in-the-air attitude, huge blown engines and massive slicks, they were the funny cars of their day and arguably the most fun to watch as a straight run down the quarter-mile was a rarity. And when one thinks of the early gassers, one of the first that jumps to mind is the Willys of Stone, Woods and Cook.

As a kid growing up in 1950s Pennsylvania, Jim Bleil, now 66, first came into contact with drag racing at his local track, but it wasn’t until the 1960 NHRA Nationals in Detroit that he came to love the Willys. Saying that the pits “looked like a Willys used car lot,” Bleil decided then and there that one day he would like a Willys of his own. What with the responsibilities of marriage, fatherhood and work taking precedent, it would take him nearly 50 years, but he has his car. First he tried to find a steel body car, but since those are getting harder to come by, he took a look at some fiberglass models, but was, to say the least, not impressed. That was until he took a trip to Covington, LA, and met with Ron Sandifer.

Sandifer owns and operates Hillside Street Rods, and was in the process of building a Willys when Bleil dropped by. After looking the car over, Bleil struck a deal with Sandifer for delivery of a finished Willys in 6 to 9 months. Then Hurricane Katrina hit. Though the shop itself didn’t receive too much damage, obtaining supplies and parts became nearly impossible and the agreed upon timeframe went out the window.

15558_thumb_FrontJPEGSandifer is a long-time Willys aficionado, and they are virtually all he builds at his shop. Included in this are his fiberglass bodies. Perfect right down to sheet metal folds as they came from the factory, the bodies are all hand-laid by Sandifer and his crew. In fact, there is little the Hillside crew doesn’t do. Beginning with the frame, they use 11-gauge mild steel to construct the frame, which utilizes one of Sandifer’s straight axles up front. Equipped with leaf springs and chromed Pro Shocks, the front end is just like a Gasser should be: high. At the end of the 4-foot Chromoly ladder bars one will find a Ford 9-inch housing equipped with a Currie center section, a Detroit locker with 3.89 ratio gears and 31-spline Currie axles. Keeping all this aloft are the Aldan coil-over shocks. A few concessions to safety’s sake were addressed and Wilwood discs now adorn the rear of the car while GM units can be found up front. Anti-sway bars from Hillside Street Rod are also in place. Getting the power to the ground is done with a set of ET Five Window wheels that has been shod with Hoosier Pro Street radials (31×16.5 OR15LT) while the classic ET Gasser front wheels wear radial Wide Track (165 R-15 86T) tires.

When one thinks of a vintage Gasser, one thinks Hemi, and not a new crate one either. Powering this ride is a 1958 vintage Chrysler 392-ci Hemi that has been punched out to 400 ci thanks to its .040 oversize bore. Built by Greulich Engine Machining and Custom Engines of Phoenix, AZ, to produce big power, it was with a huge GM 671 blower in mind. That means the Keith Black flat top pistons keep the compression ratio to a huffer-friendly 8.0:1. The original cam was re-ground by COMP Cams and the crank is a stock 392 Chrysler unit though Rods Hot Heads Research and Racing forged H-beam rods were used. The 392 heads received bronze valve guides, stainless steel valves and COMP Cam springs.

15546_thumb_RearJPEGAs stated, a 671 GM blower sits astride the Hemi (via a Weiand intake manifold), with twin Quick Fuel 650-cfm carburetors pouring high test into the mill. Providing clean air and vintage looks are the K&N air cleaner/bug catcher scoop and Moon valve covers. Another trademark look of a Gasser are the headers, and the Hot Heads Research and Racing units exit out the fender well just as intended. Other tricks are the Hunt Pro Racing Magneto ignition, HHR&R pulleys and chromed everything by The Chrome Shop of Covington, LA. The result is a conservative estimate of 500 hp.

A TCI GM Turbo 400 transmission, equipped with a TCI “Street Fighter” 2,000-rpm stall converter sends the power to the rearend via a custom Hillside Street Rods driveshaft while a B&M Automotive trans cooler ensures that only the Hoosier tires gets melted down.

Wanting this Willys to be as eye-catching as it is eye-popping, Hillside Street Rods applied the PPG Radiant II Candy Apple Red paint and backed it up with PPG 2021 clear. As stated, the body is an all fiberglass unit made by Hillside, but all of the trim parts such as the door handles, head and taillights were obtained from Willys Replacement Parts in Alto Loma, CA. The grille is a replica of a 1958 Ford unit that is a custom unit by Hillside.

Racecars are not known for their opulent interiors, and this Willys is no exception. Hillside started with a 6-point roll cage and then added Jegs race seats that have been covered in black and tan Melohyde upholstery. Keeping the driver secured are the RJS Racing Equipment 5-point harnesses while the Moon instruments keep him informed. In keeping with the theme, a Moon 3-spoke steering wheel sits atop a Speedway column while a Hurst floor shifter allows for fast gear changes. In a nod to comfort, tan carpeting covers the floor while cool Stainless Steel panels act as door, trunk and under hood panels. Connecting the electrical dots is easy thanks to the EZ Wiring wiring harness.

Due to unforeseen weather-related havoc, this Willys took two years longer to complete than originally planned but the results seem to have been well worth the wait. But then again, what are two additional years when Jim Bleil has been planning this car for over 40? Good things truly do come to those who wait.


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Nothing says drag racing like a blown Hemi. The period perfect 1958 Chrysler 392-ci (now 400-ci) engine is fed with twin 650-cfm Quick Fuel carburetors that sit atop a 671 GM blower. Classic!
The Jegs seats and RJS harnesses are race legal, and give the Willys the appropriate look.
The complete outlay of Moon gauges housed in the Willys dash are perfectly complemented by the Moon 3-spoke steering wheel and chromed Speedway column.
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A Hurst shifter shares floor space with the custom made center console and chromed fire extinguisher.
Custom made by Hillside Street Rods, the Stainless Steel door panel may be too pretty for a racecar, but they sure make the Willys look great.
As with the rest of the car, the dash panel is hand laid fiberglass.
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In charge of putting the engines brute power to the track are the Hoosier Pro Street radials that have been mounted onto ET Five Window wheels.
Decked out in tan Melohyde upholstery, carpeting and Stainless Steel accent panels, the trunk is almost nicer than the cab. It is also home to the Optima Red Top battery.
The Hillside 4-foot long ladder bars ensure that wheel hop is kept to a minimum.
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A Gasser “must have” are headers that exit out of the fender wells, and the Hot Heads Research and Racing units fill the bill perfectly.
Sporting a custom 1958 Ford inspired grille, the Willys looks mean from any angle. The chromed straight axle comes from Hillside Street Rods.

Boulder City, Nevada

1941 Willys Coupe
Candy apple red

Hand laid Fiberglass body
Ron Sandi

All work was done in the Hillside shop except for the second engine rebuild.

Previous vehicles owned: 1936 Chevy, 1937 Ford, 1948 Plymouth with a Dodge Hemi, 1955 Chevy, 1962 Corvette, 1966 Pontiac La Mans, 2 1964 Chevelle converts, 1928 Ford roadster, 1965 Chevelle convert, 1941 Willys
Current vehicles owned: 1965 Chevelle convert, and 1941 Willys coupe.

1941 Willys couple local awards and Boyd Coddington Pro Pick at Scottsdale 2008 Goodguys. The car has only been to a couple of shows.


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